We frequently nerd out about HTML emails. Whether it’s Scoping beautiful messages to share, or writing about tips and tricks to successfully build and troubleshoot them, we often concentrate on HTML-based emails. And, we’re not alone—the majority of email-related articles out there focus on emails with graphics, images, colors, and links—all of which require HTML. But, what about the equally-as-important-yet-often-forgotten plain-text emails?
Plain-text emails are just that—plain text. They are the email equivalent to a letter written on a typewriter—no images, no pretty fonts, no hyperlinks. While they may not be nearly as attractive as HTML-based emails, they play a significant role in a well-rounded email marketing strategy.
In this post, we’ll give plain-text emails the attention they deserve—focusing on why they’re important, how to properly build them, and we’ll provide plenty of examples along the way.
Preview your HTML and Text Emails
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WHY USE PLAIN TEXT?
Even when you’re sending out an HTML email, a plain text alternative is crucial. Multi-part MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions) bundles together a simplified plain-text version of your email along with the HTML version of your email. Unless you’re sending out a solely plain-text email, multi-part MIME should be part of every email campaign. Some great reasons why sending in multi-part MIME is a necessity:
- Spam filters like to see a plain-text alternative. HTML-only emails are a red flag for spam filters. A lazy spammer wouldn’t take time to create a plain-text alternative so make sure you do!
- Some people simply prefer it. Plain and simple—some people prefer text emails. Since a variety of email clients give their users the option to only receive the plain-text version of an email, it’s important to send in multi-part MIME format. Otherwise, if your subscribers have enabled this setting and you only send an HTML version, they may not receive your email at all. Some users may also see HTML emails as a security and privacy risk, and choose not to load any images and have visibility over all links that are included in an email. In addition, the increased bandwidth that image-heavy emails tend to consume is another driver of why users simply prefer plain-text emails.
What do your subscribers see when you don’t include a text alternative?
If your HTML-only email happens to make it to your subscribers’ inbox and they are unable to view HTML emails (either by preference or their email client’s capabilities), what will they see? If an email client or app can only show the plain-text version of an email, but no plain text version exists, the raw HTML code will be shown instead.
When researching examples for this post, we were surprised by the number of senders not using multi-part MIME—including brands who excel in their email marketing strategy. Between deliverability and accessibility issues, sending in that format should be a no-brainer.
We also found that a number of companies are technically sending in multi-part MIME, but the plain-text version is completely blank. For example, check out this email:
While this may look less abrasive than HTML code rendering, subscribers may be confused by receiving an empty email.
Understanding that it’s bad to ignore text versions of emails is one thing. But providing useful, well-designed plain-text emails is another. Fortunately, by following some of our tips below, you can optimize your plain-text emails for your subscribers.
OPTIMIZE YOUR PLAIN-TEXT EMAILS
Most email service providers (ESPs) will send in multi-part MIME automatically, or walk you through setting this up as an option. However, these auto-generated plain-text versions are usually unorganized and difficult to read. For example, the text version of this email is filled with back-to-back links—there are no clear calls-to-action (CTAs), and it is overall a poor email experience for any subscriber reading it.
While using these auto-generated versions can save you time, be sure to edit them if need be. There may be added spaces between paragraphs, corrupted characters (ASCII characters such as trademark, copyright, and smart quotes, etc. aren’t supported), and links and text that are unnecessary.
Regardless of whether you’re creating the plain-text version yourself, or using the auto-generated version from your ESP, it’s important to make sure the email is easily scannable and actionable. Without HTML design elements like background colors, larger text for headlines, and imagery, you must use other elements to achieve readability.
EASY SCANABILITY + CONTENT HIERARCHY
Regardless of whether you’re designing for HTML or plain text, providing your subscriber with a positive email experience is key. Part of this is organizing content so it is easily scannable (because, let’s be honest—no one is reading every word of your email). Headlines also serve as a clear indicator of which pieces of content you’d like to be the primary focus, versus secondary, tertiary, and the like. There are numerous tactics to help achieve this.
While you can’t use larger text or different colors to separate headlines from the content, there are a few strategies that do work, like using all caps or symbols to separate sections. For example, the headlines in this example are clear and stand out:
With the double asterisk (**) next to each headline and a row of dashes underneath, the headers are clear, which makes the email easy to scan.
If you don’t have defined headlines in your plain-text email (or your HTML!), your subscribers won’t have a clear reading (aka skimming) path. For example, if I opened up the email below, I would have no idea where to look first—it looks like a blend of links and text!
Another important element for scanability is whitespace—which involves including line breaks between different content sections, headlines, and CTAs. It creates a clear eye path for the subscriber, as well as allows links to be easily clickable (and touch friendly on mobile devices). This plain-text email has virtually no whitespace—making it difficult to read and follow any of the CTAs.
On the other end of the spectrum, this example uses whitespace appropriately. The use of spaces between paragraphs, links, and even equal signs (=) creates hierarchy.
Using lists is another great tactic for creating hierarchy in a plain-text email. While bullet points aren’t supported, you can use other characters, like -, *, or + instead. For example, this plain-text email uses dashes to list out special features included in a particular deal:
By using dashes, the hierarchy of the email remains intact—despite the lack of fancy HTML elements—and the reader’s eye is drawn to that aspect of the email.
Regardless of whether you’re sending an HTML or plain-text email, your CTAs should always stand out—your subscriber shouldn’t have to go looking for them! For example, in this email, all of the links and CTAs are similar and nothing stands out.
While it’s a bit more difficult to make CTAs stand out without the help of colorful HTML-based buttons, there are other tactics you can use in plain-text emails. This example uses two angle brackets (>>) to draw attention to the CTA:
Between the angle brackets and the “Shop Now” text being on one line and the link on the next, the CTA stands out in the email (and it’s easy to tap for mobile subscribers).
LET YOUR LINES RUN FREE!
In the past, many email clients allowed text to run extremely long before wrapping it on a new line. As a result, it was a best practice to add line breaks every 60 characters in your plain-text emails to increase legibility. However, times are changing—with more modern email clients (especially an influx of mobile clients) text is typically prevented from running too long or is resized to fit in the window. Nowadays, using line breaks can make your email look awkward and raggedy:
As a result, we are siding with our friends over at Campaign Monitor—let your lines run free! Don’t waste time using line breaks.
DON’T OVERDO IT WITH LINKS
If you open up an HTML-based email and it’s full of CTA buttons, you’d be overwhelmed. If you open up a plain-text email and it’s full of links, you get the same reaction.
Holy links! Not only are they not labeled, but there are so many of them. While there is no set-in-stone rule for this, the minimalistic link approach is the way we approach links in our plain-text emails. This provides subscribers with a better email experience:
When researching examples for this post we noticed that many brands kept their plain-text emails extremely simple and only included a URL to view the full email in a web browser. While this is, undoubtedly, a better approach than not sending in multi-part MIME at all (or sending a blank text version) it still feels a bit careless.
While it is definitely a time saver to plop in the “view in browser” link, it’s worth a few extra moments to honor your subscriber’s preferences.
Another approach we saw was the practice of including only the main CTA, as well as the view in browser link, in the plain-text version. This seems like a nice middle ground—providing your subscribers with content from the HTML part of the message, without spending a lot of time formatting it:
While the HTML email showcases several CTAs, the plain-text version only includes the main message. It manages to provide subscribers with relevant content and a CTA, as well as the opportunity to view the full email via the view in browser link.
What do you think of these minimalistic approaches? Do you use either of these?
HOW DO YOU CREATE YOUR PLAIN TEXT EMAILS?
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